Life among the turtles: traditional people struggle inside an Amazon reserve
- The Brazilian Amazon’s Trombetas River is well known for its exceptional biodiversity, including nesting turtles. In 1979, to protect flora and fauna there, the REBIO Trombetas was founded; it’s a highly restrictive form of conservation unit where today only very limited economic activity is permitted.
- The two traditional communities inside the reserve — the Último Quilombo and Nova Esperança Quilombo (Afro-Brazilian communities of runaway slave descendants) — complain that the government has unfairly penalized them for conducting forest and river livelihoods including Brazil nut collecting and fishing.
- Local residents also contend that while they’re fined for such minor infractions, MRN, the world’s fourth largest bauxite mining company, located near the REBIO, has done extensive ecological damage due to ore ship traffic and water pollution, which severely impacts turtle populations.
- In fact, MRN’s mines, ore processing and bauxite waste lagoons are located inside the Saracá-Taquera National Forest, a protected area known as a FLONA, on the Trombetas River. MRN has been fined often for its environmental violations there, fines it has appealed and not yet paid; the firm says it’s operating within the law.
This story is the third in a series reporting on the legacy, current status and likely future of bauxite mining in the Trombetas river basin and Amazon delta. Journalist Sue Branford and filmmaker Thaís Borges journeyed there in February, 2020. Their investigation of aluminum production is especially relevant now, as Brazil’s Bolsonaro administration pushes to open the Amazon’s indigenous reserves and other protected areas to large-scale industrial mining.
As the dry season gets underway in July, the water levels in most Amazon basin rivers fall. As river beaches are exposed, millions of river turtles begin creeping ashore in an eons-old ritual to lay their eggs, burying them in sand dunes flooded half the year.
Among these far traveling chelonians are the Giant South American turtle (Podocnemis expansa). One of the world’s largest freshwater turtles; it can grow to 90 centimeters (nearly three feet) in length, and weigh up to 65 kilograms (145 pounds).
“Amazon turtles cover long distances between the basins of the big rivers in the Amazon basin. They migrate in groups and, guided by the adult females, they tend to follow the same route each year between the feeding areas and the spawning areas,” biologist Virginia Bernardes of the Institute of Ecological Research (IPÊ) told Mongabay.
One place they particularly thrive, and a prime spawning spot, is found on the flat dunes along the Trombetas River. Many mating turtles head for Erepecu, an immense lagoon that opens along the left-hand river bank. Between the months of September and November, the Giant South American turtle and other species, such as Yellow-spotted river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) and the Six-tubercled Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata), arrive and nest. They lay between 15 and 130 eggs on average, depending on species.
The period of egg incubation and the hatching is a dangerous time for young turtles. Countless predators — vultures, other birds, lizards, caimans, frogs and varied small mammals — dig up the nests, or are ready to pounce on the small turtles as they break out of their shells, claw to the surface, then scuttle to the river where they find some refuge.
The assistance of traditional communities has been vital to the success of turtle conservation programs in the Trombetas River basin.
People, too, are a threat; turtle meat has long been prized in the Amazon. Eighteenth and 19th century traveller accounts tell us that turtle meat and eggs, common in the indigenous diet, became highly prized among colonists. The eggs were even used in the making of streetlamp oil. The wild turtle trade was banned in 1967, though it has continued clandestinely.
However, according to Bernardes, changes in habitat are just as much of a threat as poaching. “The construction of physical barriers like hydroelectric dams, the heavy traffic of large ships, the dredging of deep channels in the river, the pollution of creeks or tributaries, all this severely affects the turtle population,” she said.
In 1979, the Brazilian government moved to protect flora and fauna here, including the turtles, and set up the Trombetas Biological Reserve (REBIO Trombetas), a highly restrictive form of conservation unit, where at first virtually no economic activity was permitted.
The area selected, covering 385,000 hectares (1,486 square miles) on the left bank of the Trombetas River, was not, however, uninhabited, for it included two communities of quilombolas — Afro-Brazilians, many of them descendants of runaway slaves. The creation of the REBIO Trombetas in an area occupied by those two traditional communities (the Último Quilombo do Erepecu and Quilombo de Nova Esperança) has created complications and ongoing conflicts that have rippled down through the years to the present day.
A changing view of Amazon protection
At the time REBIO Trombetas was founded, many conservationists erroneously believed the Amazon to be a pristine Garden of Eden, best left untouched by humans. As a result, the quilombos were seen as intrusive, and REBIO managers worked hard to prevent long-time traditional inhabitants from using and impacting the rainforest and rivers.
Some quilombolas were evicted after 1979, but most remained. They clung tenaciously to their homes, despite draconian conservation restrictions. At the time, it was a criminal offense for local residents to hunt, fish or collect forest products, except for their own consumption — a difficult regime because the sale of such commodities was the only means of earning cash to buy needed modern household amenities and utilitarian items.
The rules were rigidly enforced, with some officials apparently overstepping the limits. Maria Conceição de Jesus, 70 years old, recalls that enforcers from the IBDF (the Brazilian Institute of Forest Development), an environmental body that administered the REBIO until 1989, would go so far as to seize food out of kitchen pans, and confiscate fishing rods and canoes.
Tensions exploded in 1994, with tragic results for Maria Conceição. Her 22-year-old son was killed by a forest guard working for IBAMA (the federal environmental agency that replaced IBDF), while he was capturing Yellow-spotted river turtles, popularly known as tracajás. He had been organizing a puxirum, a traditional collective practice in which families help each other; custom dictates that the family benefiting from the work treat the helpers to a meal at the end of the day. “He [the forest guard] killed my son early in the morning of 3 October, because of nine tracajás,” Maria Conceição lamented.
The rigid controls were gradually relaxed after the killing, as the inhabitants won some concessions. Relations with the forest guards improved further under ICMBio (the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation), the national park agency that took over the running of conservation units in 2007.
More recently families gained the right to carry out small-scale subsistence farming. “Today we can plant an area of 10,000 square meters [108,00 square feet],” explained Cléia de Jesus dos Santos, who lives in the Último Quilombo.
But problems remain. Naildo Pereira de Jesus, also from the Último Quilombo, told us that “If we’re caught selling fish, ICMBio confiscates not only the fish but the boat and everything in it. You arrive home with nothing but the clothes you’re wearing — and a fine. You’re banned, too, from collecting Brazil nuts for a period.” Mongabay contacted ICMBio for a response but had not received an answer when this article went to press.
Changing views about Brazil nuts
The REBIO Trombetas encompasses a large, densely clustered number of Brazil nut trees and those trees are an important source of income for traditional people.
The Mongabay team accompanied Adriel Regis and Ozias dos Santos, as they walked through the forest, picking up ouriços (Brazil nut cases) on the forest floor. An ouriço, typically holding about a dozen Brazil nuts, is heavy, weighing about 750 grams (1.6 pounds). If it falls on your head from a 50-meter-high tree, it can kill you. “If it’s very windy, it’s best not to stand under a Brazil nut tree,” warned Ozias. Even on fine days, the young men move away from the trees before cutting open the ouriços with a machete and then stowing the nuts in a woven basket carried on their backs.
Since the REBIO was created, many ecologists have changed their Edenic view of the forest and of the impacts traditional communities have on it. The dominant view today is that the vast Amazon rainforest was long ago shaped by humans, and the large concentrations of Brazil nut trees found along Amazonia’s rivers may be an excellent example of the way ancient peoples shaped the forest to better serve human occupation.
Ecologist Ricardo Scoles, from the Federal University of the West of Pará, explains: “The greatest Brazil nut concentrations occur near rivers and lakes, the places most densely occupied by indigenous populations in the past. Here you find an average of eight Brazil nut trees per hectare, and we’ve even found 19, whereas in the areas further away from water courses the average falls to five.”
There may be several reasons for this high concentration: “As Brazil nut tree seedlings grow better in areas with a higher incidence of light, one hypothesis is that the Brazil nut trees flourished in areas cleared to plant subsistence crops,” says Scoles.
Another factor may be the role humans have played in seed dispersion. Only a few animals, including rodents such as the agouti, can disperse seeds, as only they have sufficiently sharp teeth to open the ouriços. However, “Rodents can explain short-distance dispersion, but not the distribution throughout Amazonia,” says Scoles. He believes that traditional peoples, including the quilombolas in Erepecu who have been collecting Brazil nuts for more than a century, may have helped in the dispersion due to unwitting distribution while collecting, cleaning and storing the nuts. “That’s why we often find seedlings in the temporary camps set up by the Brazil nut collectors,” he explains.
A difficult balance: The REBIO is essential for the preservation of the forest and rivers, but it imposes severe restrictions on those who live within its boundaries, says Naildo Pereira de Jesus, a resident of the Último Quilombo.
Ongoing restrictions on traditional livelihoods
Brazilian environmental authorities have been slow to accept that traditional communities may benefit the Brazil nut tree, a species listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Only in 2011 did the REBIO legalize the collection and sale of Brazil nuts by the quilombolas — an activity fundamental to their livelihoods and culture.
Getting authorization still involves reams of paperwork and those allowed to collect nuts can have their authorization suspended, if caught breaking the rules.
Many are unhappy with the bureaucracy: “We are just as repressed today as in the past, when trade was controlled by the ‘plantation owner’ [who monopolized the supply of goods and purchase of nuts]. If he found that you’d sold nuts to a regatão [a travelling salesman], he would ban you from working the following year,” says Raimundo Barbosa, who has been a Brazil nut collector for over 60 years, even in the face of changing restrictions.
Teaming up to protect turtles
In one important program, local quilombolas are now seen as a vital component of REBIO protection. Today, they protect the nesting sites of the much lauded Trombetas River Turtle Programme, launched in 1979 and continued under IBAMA and ICMBio. Local inhabitants became involved in 2003, in partnership with the environmental agencies.
Under the program, 27 families living in the Último Quilombo and Nova Esperança Quilombo protect the turtles during the breeding season, watching over the beaches and nests during incubation and hatching, keeping poachers and predators away.
For the five crucial months of the breeding season, from September to January, Cléia and her brother-in-law, Raimundo Barbosa, live and sleep in an improvised hut on one beach.
Researchers say that their work is crucial to the Giant South American turtle (Podocnemis expansa). “At the moment, this species is only being conserved in areas where their nesting sites are protected,” said Bernardes.
The quilombolas are proud of their successful efforts, but want financial support from ICMBio for the long hours they put in. “If I leave the beach, people come and rob the nests. So, I can’t work. I have to keep watch,” explains Raimundo Barbosa. “The programme only provides food baskets and fuel. And if I get ill, where’s the money coming from to buy medicine? And how can I buy school material for my son?”
The locals have sounded out ICMBio, but were told that a private company would have to cover any additional cost. The programme already gets support from institutions like the IPÊ ecological research institute and Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN), the world’s fourth largest bauxite producer, which operates in the region and supplies the turtle project food baskets. But the families say they need more.
Bauxite mining harm vs. sustainable livelihoods
Located in Porto Trombetas, an hour downstream by boat, MRN has reportedly contributed to habitat disturbance along the Trombetas River, and is believed by researchers to be the main cause of turtle population declines there.
According to the REBIO Trombetas management plan published in 2004: “The constant presence of deep-draught ships to transport the bauxite, now totaling 300 a year, is changing the way sediments settle, for the ships’ heavy propellers disturb the bottom of the rivers and cause turbulence. This may be the main cause of the reduction in the population of the Podocnemis expansa turtle in the area.”
The company’s presence has also inadvertently altered traditional livelihoods. “People [living] near Porto Trombetas stopped planting crops and went to work for the mining company, or became maids in the company town. But they still need to feed their families,” said Cléia.
“Before the mining company arrived, we just hunted and fished to get food for ourselves,” added Barbosa. “But now people want to buy food from us.” Meeting that increased demand has put added pressure on local fisheries and wildlife, with the number of available fish and animals to hunt and catch declining.
While relations between Brazil’s environmental agencies and traditional people have improved as controls have been relaxed, some tensions remain. This is seen in the Saracá-Taquera National Forest (known today as a FLONA) on the right-hand bank of the Tapajós River, covers 429,000 hectares (951,356 acres). The FLONA encompasses MRN’s mining facilities and many local traditional communities. Although conflict has been much less than in the REBIO Trombetas, there has been friction.
Ten years after the creation of REBIO Trombetas, Brazilian President José Sarney flew over the region and saw that MRN was directly discharging waste from its huge bauxite mine into once pristine Batata Lake — a notorious Amazon environmental disaster. In response, the Brazilian government created the FLONA in 1989, another type of conservation unit — protected but where economic activities, including regulated mining, are permitted.
The decree setting up the FLONA recognized MRN’s right to mine there and established an annual company payment to the body administering the FLONA. In 2019, the company paid ICMBio about R$1.5 million ($288,000) under the agreement. In addition, before deforesting a new area, MRN makes a payment to ICMBio, based on a calculation of the value of the destroyed forest. In 2019, it paid ICMBio R$9 million ($1.7 million) before opening a new mine.
Despite these payments, Luiz Jardim, geography professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, who carries out research in the region, says the creation of the FLONA favored MRN’s long-term interests. It was, he explained, “a way of not only making it impossible for new mining companies to set up in the region, but also of controlling population flows around the mine.” The company gains other advantages, too, Jardim said: “The creation of the conservation unit allows the company to polish its green credentials and to hand over to the state the administration of the area.”
Traditional populations living within the FLONA say that they suffer disproportionately from environmental monitoring, while MRN is favored. For many years, Domingo Gomes, a peasant farmer living in the region went into the forest that now is part of the FLONA to hunt and collect forest products and plant subsistence crops. To his dismay, in 2011 he received a fine of R$108,000 ($21,000) for clearing 9 hectares (22 acres), an area regarded by the authorities as too large, even though Gomes was working with others as part of a community collective in the clearance for crops.
“How am I going to pay this?” he asked. “Do they think I’d be planting cassava in the forest, if I had this kind of money?” He added angrily that both IBAMA and ICMBio ignore the environmental impacts caused by MRN, while punishing locals for perceived infractions.
This isn’t entirely true. Until Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019 and declared war on the IBAMA’s “industry of fines,” the agency did impose fines for environmental crimes. In 2018, under Brazil’s Temer administration, MRN was fined nine times, for a total of R$17 million ($3.2 million). Three fines it was fined for polluting the air and water near its mines. MRN appealed.
Cléia de Jesus dos Santos, who lives in the Último Quilombo, would welcome the possibility of planting small-scale subsistence crops behind her home. But she says that reserve rules allow only native species to be planted and grown in the REBIO.
Little hope of owning their traditional lands
The government’s declaration of the FLONA was a severe blow to the communities who had hoped to register the land they occupied as theirs, especially because this ownership right had been granted just a year earlier in 1988, enshrined within the nation’s new, progressive Constitution.
Vladimir Moreira, director of sustainability at MRN, recognizes this contradictory problem: “If the FLONA didn’t exist, it’s very likely that the quilombola communities would have been given the right to their land,” he said. “But for the quilombolas to gain the collective right to their land, the conservation unit [the FLONA] would have to be revoked by the National Congress.” This is the final (but difficult) obstacle that the communities in the Alto Trombetas 1 and 2 territories — who had their rights to the land recognized in reports published by the National Institute of Colonization and Land Reform (INCRA) in 2017 — face to get control of their land.
Meanwhile, MRN continues benefiting from the status quo. If the quilombolas won land rights, the company would not only have to pay the government the CFEM tax (Financial Compensation for the Exploitation of Mining Resources), charged at the rate of 3% of turnover, but also make another payment of 1.5% of turnover to the association representing the quilombo on whose land a mine is operating.
Despite that, Moreira says that the mining company supports the quilombolas’ ongoing struggle to obtain their land rights. This is very unlikely to happen, particularly with the current hostility to quilombolas expressed by Bolsonaro and Congress.
The interplay of overlapping and conflicting interests — those of the mining company, of environmental agencies and traditional communities — is complex and difficult to sort out, everyone agrees.
But James Fraser, a lecturer in anthropology at Lancaster University in the UK, sees a clear hierarchy in how the federal government deals with the various actors: “In the conservation model adopted along the Trombetas River (FLONA and REBIO), the huge impacts of mineral exploitation are more acceptable to the Brazilian State and its environmental agencies than the presence of traditional communities,” he says. “Despite the fact that these communities manage forests and lakes in a sustainable way, forest people are falsely depicted as destructive of the environment, as a way of hiding those really responsible for damaging the rivers and forests: large corporations.”
According to scientists, Brazil nut trees growing densely together may offer evidence that forest areas within the REBIO along rivers may be a type of anthropized forest deep in the Amazon.
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